ATLANTA - It's 6:15 in the morning. Do you know where your basketball team is?
You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to play for Paul Hewitt. Throughout preseason and at least once a week since, Georgia Tech basketball practice commences at sunrise.
"I'm just a big believer that if you're in great shape, that gives you confidence," said Hewitt, the first-year coach at Georgia Tech who is a shoo-in for ACC coach of the year. "There's nothing worse than going out there and your mind says, `Let's do this,' but your legs and body can't allow it."
Hewitt's ultimate goal every game is to reach the final four - minutes, that is. Just get to the final four minutes with a chance to win. When the season drags into February, that's where superior conditioning pays off.
Witness last week's victories against Maryland and Virginia, when it was Georgia Tech that made the shots and the stops needed to win tight games. Are the Jackets that much stronger?
"You never know if it's actual energy, but as long as you believe it is, then that's more than half the battle," Hewitt said.
Hewitt has pushed his team into a place nobody expected before this season - third place in the ACC and on the threshold of the school's first NCAA Tournament invitation in five years. Mounting wins over ranked opponents have made believers out of Georgia Tech's long list of skeptics.
There's a new can-do mentality in Atlanta.
"Last year, it was more like we were trying to stay above water," senior point guard Tony Akins said. "This year, we're above water and just trying to grab more, get greedy."
Akins credits Hewitt with fostering that mentality. "He broke us down early in the year, and we had to be strong to become a team."
Hewitt first experienced the early wake-up calls as a high school player in Long Island, N.Y. He and his teammates never questioned the authority that regularly convened 4:30 a.m. practices. One Thanksgiving morning, practice began at 5:30.
"You have to push yourself almost to the limit to find out what your limits are," Hewitt says.
How did the Georgia Tech players first react to the morning sessions?
"Silence," Hewitt said. "There were some kind of strange looks like, `You've got to be kidding.' But I think there were days that they enjoyed it. ... After you get results, you can buy into it. And we're getting some results."
The results are drawing national attention. With quality wins over Wake Forest, Maryland, Virginia (twice), Kentucky and UCLA, Georgia Tech (14-8, 6-5 ACC) is poised to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996.
None of it surprises the 37-year-old coach enjoying his first big-time gig.
"That was the goal from the start, to try to get to the NCAA Tournament," he insists.
What did Hewitt see in these Yellow Jackets that nobody else did?
"I saw a big-time shot blocker and rebounder who is the best in the ACC coming back," he said of Alvin Jones. "And I saw a group of shooters. There are two things that can cure a lot of ills in basketball - if you've got a guy who can erase shots in the middle and you've got guys that can make shots from the perimeter."
Even when Georgia Tech was predicted to finish eighth in the nine-team ACC, Hewitt wasn't dissuaded. When a reporter called him naive, he just smiled.
"My first season at Siena, we were picked to finish ninth in a 10-team league," he said.
That Siena team finished third in the regular season and lost in the MAAC Championship game.
Once again, it's Hewitt's critics who are waking up.
Reach Scott Michaux at 823-3219.
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